Check out these excerpts from two articles about Jennifer Schelter and her one-woman play LOVE LESSONS FROM ABU GHRAIB from this week's Philadelphia City Paper and Chestnut Hill Local. LOVE LESSONS runs as a special engagement on InterAct's mainstage January 29 - February 13:
Through yoga, Philadelphia playwright Jennifer Schelter taps into the compassion of an Iraqi torture
In 2006, lawyers working on a class-action suit against two U.S. defense contractors — CACI and Titan — interviewed an Iraqi citizen named Abdulwahab.
His testimony was roughly as follows:
He traveled from his village to Baghdad to buy a car. American forces raided the hotel he was staying in. He was restrained with plastic handcuffs, hooded and taken to one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. He was told he was in al-Qaida. He didn't know what al-Qaida was or what it meant. He was stripped naked and interrogated. He was taken to another location and forced to run on his knees and knuckles for 10 days, not sleeping more than 20 minutes at a time.
Then he was sent to Abu Ghraib, and things got worse.
His story is buried under thousands of pages of testimony from more than 300 plaintiffs in Haidar Muhsin Saleh v. Titan Corporation — a case now awaiting review by the Supreme Court. And it would have likely stayed there, except that one of the note-takers at his interview in Istanbul was a yoga instructor and former Equity actress from Philadelphia.
After years of performing in regional theater — and burning out on it — Jennifer Schelter started a yoga studio in East Falls. She thought her stage career was long behind her.
About five years ago, she was approached by one of her students after class. "She said she had just gotten back from listening to torture testimony," explains Schelter. "She wanted me to come with her, but she didn't know why exactly. She said she thought these people needed healing, and I could help. She said, 'Maybe you could do yoga with them or maybe just your presence would be healing.'"
The student was Susan Burke, lead prosecuting attorney on Saleh v. Titan.
Schelter began writing LOVE LESSONS FROM ABU GHRAIB in compulsive bursts, shortly after returning home from Istanbul.
"I had reverse culture shock. No one cares about this, and everyone wants to be happy," says Schelter. "Christmas Day, I sat down and wrote as many stories as I could remember. Because the level of forgiveness in these men was beyond anything I had ever witnessed."
LOVE LESSONS is a one-woman show based on Abdulwahab's testimony. But it's also very much about Schelter's attempt to cling to the virtues of her yoga training in the face of breathtaking inhumanity.
The play debuted at the 2007 Philly Fringe with four chairs, a stage and a budget of about $300. An InterAct Theatre Co. board member fell for it, and gave a DVD copy of the show to artistic director Seth Rozin. He fell for it, too: LOVE LESSONS opens Saturday at InterAct....
Chestnut Hill Local
... [Chestnut] Hill Actress Aids Victims of U.S. Torture
As Jennifer Schelter, 44, prepares for the re-opening of her critically acclaimed one-woman performance piece at the InterAct Theatre, LOVE LESSONS FROM ABU GHRAIB, she recalls that a few years ago she could not possibly have predicted the course of events that would dramatically change her life.
In 2006, Schelter — a Chestnut Hill native, Germantown Friends School alumna and owner of the Yoga Schelter studio in East Falls — was offered the Lierman Trust for Humanitarian Law’s invitation to join lawyer Susan Burke in Istanbul, Turkey. The pair were interviewing Iraqis who had been tortured by U.S. Army personnel at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison. In 2004, the prison was a topic of international controversy after details emerged proving several U.S. Army members had intentionally abused the prisoners...
“I had no idea 99.9% of the population of prisoners were just random,” Schelter said last week. “There was very little reason why they should have been tortured. I was so naïve. I thought the U.S. gave up torture a long time ago. Am I flaming liberal? Absolutely not, and I’m not trying to preach. There just have to be other ways of getting information.”...
Slowly, as the former prisoners became emotionally unguarded, Schelter realized some methods designed to establish healing worked better than others. Genuinely welcoming the prisoners and acknowledging their courage to speak about their experiences were two critical components towards establishing trust. With the presence of mutual trust, Schelter realized she was in unique company.
“I was lucky the prisoners never told me to leave the room,” Schelter said.” They didn’t come from a culture of therapeutics. Being able to release their stories and share the burden of those stories was important. Most prisoners actually said, ‘I’m terribly sorry to burden you with this; thank you for listening.’"
Although Schelter initially journeyed to Istanbul with the intent of giving, she surprisingly received something — a new perspective on the human capacity to love. Following her return to Philadelphia, Schelter created the play, “Love Lessons from Abu Ghraib,” as a way to express her experience and also help others....
The performance explores the themes of love, forgiveness, fearlessness and transformation. As an actress who shared in receiving a Tony Award at the Denver Center Theatre Company and a member of Actors’ Equity and the Screen Actors Guild, Schelter brings experience along with her passion.
“To me, it’s like eating a big courage sandwich,” Schelter said. “It’s all about overcoming fear and depression and transcending through personal and universal faith to find out what’s possible. Everyone makes a difference; witnessing other people makes a huge difference. Not passing judgment makes a huge difference.“...
Links to more information about LOVE LESSONS:
Purchase Tickets to LOVE LESSONS
Read Bruce Walsh's Entire Philadelphia City Paper Article
Read Erik Hubbard's Entire Chestnut Hill Local Article
Watch the Video Trailer of LOVE LESSONS
An Interview with Playwright & Performer Jennifer Schelter